Founded in 2003, the Cut Circle ensemble specializes in performing vocal music from the Renaissance. In the past few years, the group, under the baton of its musical director Jesse Rodin, has released two double albums that offer a generous taste of the period and the musical processes that marked it. More important, the CDs offer almost five hours of enthralling music, remote and mysterious, spectacularly rendered, flowing and pellucid.
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The first album, from 2012, “Music at the Sistine Chapel Around 1490,” focuses on two composers, Marbianus de Orto and Josquin Desprez. I have to confess that I wasn’t familiar with de Orto; but Desprez was one of the leading and best-known composers of the era. Both were part of a group of talented musicians from the court of Pope Sixtus IV. The pontiff for whom the Sistine Chapel is named, he also laid the foundations for the strong musical center that existed in the Vatican. The band of composers surrounding him blended Italian, Flemish, French and German styles, and Desprez’s role in that process was central. He is known in the history of music as a composer who fused the polyphonic style of the low countries, songs from Italy and traditions of secular music into an international musical style.
In an in-depth review of the period, Rodin, who is also a researcher of music, seeks to trace the roots of de Orto and more particularly of Desprez, an important composer about whom little is known. The gist of the album, though, is not the academic discussion but the beautiful voices and the way they intertwine to underscore and illuminate the multivocal layers in the masses, hymns and motets composed by Desprez and de Orto – two and a half hours of music as delicate as it is riveting. For lovers of early music, this is a celebration. Even those who aren’t familiar with music of the period might well surrender to the gorgeous vocal harmonies; for them, it might be preferable to listen to short passages, so that each track will register distinctively and the sequence will not become monotonic.
Even more thrilling is Cut Circle’s 2015 album containing four masses by Guillaume Du Fay. Each mass takes its name from a song, one of whose themes serves as a musical basis for the mass. The album contains performances of the songs as well.
Du Fay was born near Brussels to a woman named Marie Du Fayt and an unknown priest. The single mother – not a convenient status to have around the turn of the 15th century – was taken in by another priest, a relative of Marie’s from the cathedral in Cambrai, in northern France. As a result, Guillaume received both a broad general education and a musical education. He continued his training in Italy, and toward the middle of the 15th century was already considered one of the most important composers in Europe. His works represent the finest of the polyphonic school of the low countries.
In addition to a rich, colorful, multivocal sound, Du Fay offers enchanting melodies and a sweeping flow. All these features come through in the performances by Cut Circle, conducted by Jesse Rodin, who opts for rapid tempi and maintains interest and alertness. At this speed, an effort on the part of the listener is needed in some movements to follow the details, hues and voices. At the same time, the ensemble’s rich vocal colors bring forth the polyphony, a mission in which they are aided by the clear, close, intimate sound produced by the engineers of the small Musique en Wallonie label.